The Physiology of Fear. And How to Pwn It.

Once  upon a time, I had a dream. A dream of being able to stand in front of a group of people and speak, with excitement, passion and confidence, without fear taking over, making my hands tremble and voice shake, without the constant worry of being good enough, intelligent enough, or entertaining enough. If you’ve been reading for a while now, you’ll know that it’s an ongoing challenge, and something I’ve been trying to tackle at every opportunity. But getting my body to cooperate with the direction in which my mind wants to go has proved… difficult.  The first efforts were small. Attending meetings at work, and actually speaking up instead of keeping my mouth shut for an hour. Breaking out Cranium at parties and choosing Star Performer over Word Worm. Facilitating workshops to groups of 5 or 6 . Tiny steps along the path to my goal of shaking free the fear. Talking the talk is becoming easier, but physically walking the walk? Not so much.

Through those workshops, I realised something that helped push me forward: I wasn’t public speaking, I was teaching. I was giving people information that they could use to help them succeed. When I started thinking of it that way, it was a doddle. No longer was I in the spotlight, all eyes on me, ready for judgment day, but I was simply being blessed with the opportunity to pass on helpful information to others. The desire to help outweighed the fear, and it became okay. It became okay when it stopped being about me.

A few weeks ago, however, I was put into one of the most terrifying situations I could imagine. All the extroverts out there may very well laugh at this – but I had to do a public reading of a piece of my own written work.  Fiction. In a public bookshop.  I couldn’t use the same mechanisms I could in front of a class, because I wasn’t “teaching” or providing anyone with helpful information. I was just baring my words to the world; something I’d poured my heart into was to be lifted from the refuge of the page and thrust into the great wide open. I was petrified. I arrived at the bookshop an hour early, frantically texting one of my dearest friends, ordering a large glass of wine, and trying to remember to breathe. The seconds crawled by and the world followed in slow motion; rows upon rows of chairs slowly growing, bodies starting to fill them.  I’d prayed nobody would come, but the faces kept coming, their words of encouragement and support filtering through my ears,  landing heavy on a rapidly beating heart. 6:00 rolled around. I was up.

The 10 minutes seemed almost an eternity, but I kept reading, my eyes glued to the page. As the words came out, I tried to lose myself in the story I’d created, forcing my mind into the scene and the character, subsequently forcing out thoughts of self-deprecation. I made it through, took a deep breath, and lifted my head. I saw rows of smiling faces and clapping hands. I heard “wow”s whispered and was asked when I was going to finish the book. It didn’t seem real – I felt like I was living someone else’s life for a moment; someone who was actually able to do something well in the real world – and I couldn’t quite grasp it. A moment I’ve longed for for as long as I can remember, and I came out the other side unscathed.

So I did what any hip and cool person would do, and proceeded to burst into floods of tears. I don’t know what it was – the release of weeks worth of pent-up nervous energy, the unexpected victory, the compliments I’d spent years convincing myself I wasn’t worthy of receiving – or a combination of the three, but I bawled like a BABY.  In front of everybody. Luckily I was back in my seat, and even luckier I was struck after my performance, but it was something I’d never felt before. As with every difficult thing, practice = less panic and greater confidence, so as uncomfortable and scary as it is, I have to keep going.

So, next steps? I’ll do what I always do, and throw myself in at the deep end. My new job starts in a matter of weeks, fifty percent of which is going to be teaching in the biggest classroom in the building. This weekend and next, I’ll be standing in for a couple of DJ friends of mine who host their own radio show (who just had a beautiful baby girl, who though adorable, may not fit right at home in a radio studio). Hosting it. I want to learn new coping mechanisms of how to throw off the anxiety and embrace the challenges and opportunities. Mentally, I think I might be on the right track, but how do you overcome the body’s natural tendencies to fall into the physiological reactions to fear? The heart racing, the hands shaking, the pit of the stomach wallowing, and the mouth drying. Changing your mind about something is one thing, but changing your body’s defiant behaviour is quite another. I want to get in front of those classes and behind the mic and just bask in the excitement of it all – project enthusiasm and confidence, rather than the telltale signs of nerves.  I’m really working on changing the way I think about the situations – but any tips on altering the way I physically react would be hugely appreciated.

Failing that, pictures of kittens/celebrities falling over/the OMG Cat/OMG Cat vs iPad always fixes anything. 🙂


  1. I think that what you’re doing is exactly right- just keep refusing to let your anxiety hold you back! For me it was really a matter of learning to trust my mind over my fight or flight reflex over a couple of years, and my body did fall in line after a while.

    One of the biggest helps for me was exercising regularly, just as a way to remember that feeling of real physical stress in my body. Having that as a point of contrast really helped me to just barrel through when I felt shaky.

    In the mean time I think it’s just deep breathes and trying to extend those periods of keeping your cool. And laugh when you lose your cool. 🙂 Just don’t be to hard on yourself- some anxiety is totally normal, especially in situations where all eyes are on you.

    1. I think refusal is the only option! And I remember when I was seeing someone a couple of years ago for the anxiety, she suggested exercising more regularly too and just getting more used to endorphins rushing in a “safe” situation that might make it more okay in a “scary” situation. Good job becoming a runner is on my list! 🙂

  2. That’s amazing – well done! I am always impressed by people who actively work to expand their bubble! I’m glad that you’re teaching too – please tell this story to your students, I think that they would appreciate someone doing all of the things that they WANT to do (I.e. Throwing yourself into the deep end and landing on your feet).

    Also, I’m interested in your fiction, can I sneak a look at it sometime? 🙂

    1. Hey Kenley!! Thanks for reading and for your kind comments – I definitely try to mention a little bit of this type of stuff to my students, I find it really helps win them over in a funny sort of way. I can definitely share a bit of fiction work with you sometime, but I’m too scared to blog it publicly right now — we can do it over email 🙂

  3. I agree with Kyla, you are doing all the right things and eventually the body doesn’t respond as drastically as it did the first time.

    The body will follow and your desire to master it and awe-inspiring.

    I’m so stunned that I don’t get nervous anymore when only a year ago I couldn’t eat breakfast before I spoke, and now I’m a keynote speaker! I did as you did in your blog I refused to allow fear to rule me and saw a vision of who I wanted to be and now I’m living it!

    Hold tightly to that vision of you want to be and the rest will follow.

    1. I remember when you told me you were so afraid to go through with your WEDDING because you were so nervous of being in front of people and it blew me away because you are the most confident, inspiring person I know! I am gripping my vision and dream tightly with both hands and just hoping one day it will come true, but I also know that the things that are worth the most in life sometimes are the hardest to achieve.

  4. You are moving mountains girly. I am so proud of you. You need to be the one to be the boss of that anxiety, so bossy that it wont want to stick around anymore! You are such an inspiration. Love you!


    Hannah Katy

  5. I like to think I’m a pretty confident person and I have no problem talking in front of a small group of people – but before getting up in front of a big group, strangers or not, my heart starts to POUND! It’s so strange and I hate it!

    You’re right though, the best way to get over your fear is to FACE IT!

    1. And repeatedly! I remember singing in front of a HUNDRED people in school and it being absolutely okay, because I couldn’t make out individual faces, but big groups where I still can? Terrifying!! One day I hope I’ll be able to embrace the challenge…

  6. I too am proud and very happy for you! You are following your dreams (in big ways) and obviously that means getting rid of some fears. You’re facing your anxieties head on and that not only takes courage, but determination.

    I have never been good at public speaking. I’m a real estate manager so I very seldom have to give any type of speech. Glad you got that out of the way and taken care of 🙂 On to the next.

    1. Thank you so much sweetie – I really appreciate your kind words. I just long for the determination to turn into comfort and excitement and for the equation to finally be free of fear 🙂

  7. You are awesome! I think it’s awesome that you are pushing yourself, eventually you’ll get more and more comfortable. Isn’t it strange when you are so overcome with emotion that you just cry and cry? I had that happen when I finished National Boards this year – when I packed my box, when I mailed my box, and when I finished the tests. I didn’t think I was that stressed out by everything, but it felt just completely freeing to know that I was done and had accomplished such a large goal. I didn’t expect to cry, but it was like my body was just swept up in a huge wave of relief. It felt good to cry. I guess it shows how much emotions can be physical as well as mental. Keep it up!

    1. I guess it’s also a part of keeping it inside for so long – when we’re stressed or scared about something we don’t usually talk about it, so when it’s over with it can really be quite emotional, and the release I guess can only come out through tears! It was definitely a good cry but I was blown away by how I just couldn’t stop 🙂

  8. I am not one for public speaking either but always give it a shot when it comes up. Normally I get near the end of whatever it is (speech, karaoke, debate) before my body starts to shake. Sadly for some reason, even when I’m playing with good friends, I get these shakes when playing poker and get a hand that I know I’m going to win (I’d say I win 75% of those hands when I’m shaking so that’s a plus!). I think you may be able to trick your mind eventually into ignoring the anxiety but the body is another animal entirely. Good luck trying to tame it!

    1. Thanks! I was much the same in class this year – we’d always have to read our assignments out loud and it was only to a small class, but halfway through or towards the end I’d get really shaky and feel like I was holding my breath as I was talking; it’s kind of hard to explain. Glad to hear you still give everything a shot regardless 🙂

  9. Oh, Em! I’m so happy you had this experience! Isn’t it the best feeling to force ourselves to do scary things and come out on the other realizing…well, that wasn’t so bad, after all! I love it. I love that you are working towards this, in spite of your bodily reactions. I wish I had advice for what to do with the body’s natural reactions, but I don’t, if you discover any, let me know! Haha. I too am trying to do push myself, to do things that I’m afraid of, because I know they’ll only be sources of growth for me. I’m so excited for you, and if I were local I would have totally been there! ❤

    1. Aww, thanks!! I should’ve just set up a webcam lol and had you all in the audience smiling at me waving “it’s okay!” banners 🙂 I love that you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone too and you’re right, it’s so incredible coming out the other side. I remember the first class I taught, and collected my evaluation forms — having one full of “strongly agree”s and “would have thought you’d been teaching for years” made me CRY and I literally SKIPPED back to my office 🙂 🙂

  10. Hi Emily,
    I read your every word, and I feel everything you are feeling… or at least it seems that way.
    I gave up my dream of studying music and playing in an orchestra for all of the reasons you write about.
    A few years ago, I tried the one thing I’ve always wanted to do but was too afraid. I signed up for singing lessons!
    My worst fear, that I could not sing proved to be ridiculous, but the panic that I felt the minute I even considered the fact that anyone could hear me continued to hold me back from being as good as I could have been.
    A couple of years ago, just before my 3rd voice recital I found a quote that did change my life.

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Wiliamson

    Two days later, I am standing in front of an audience, after a HUGE fight with my Mum, (just what you need when you are about to get up to perform). My best friend didn’t show up, and I am singing my heart out. I am shining because I have realized that I have all of the right to shine that everyone else does. You do too!

    Needless to say, people were blown away. My teacher and other students who had watched me grow for 3 years were truly impressed and said so.

    I haven’t had the chance to perform since, (although I intend to go back to lessons this fall, Yay!) But even this past few weeks I have sung at a backyard party. My voice is rusty after two years of no lessons, but still, I allowed myself to shine and those around me loved it!

    SHINE GIRL! Blind us all!

    1. What a story!! I love that you defied EVERY fear and every situational force and blew everyone away anyway. I think we all have the ability to make that choice but the combination of nerves, physiological signs of anxiety, worry and self doubt is usually easier to succumb to, and I’m hoping it’s just a matter of practice where it becomes more natural to believe in myself than not. HOPING. 🙂 I love your story and I would love to hear you sing sometime!!

  11. em i am so proud of you for getting up there and facing such a big fear!!!! i can’t even imagine doing that & i know how much writing means to you & i’m just happy that you got to share your talent with the world even if it was just for ten minutes. i’m so proud of you and i think crying afterwards just shows how much it meant to you to overcome it and do it… shows what a strong lady you are!!!! you are such an inspiration & good LUCK with the new job and the radio show, can i listen??? xoxo

  12. OMG! I’m so happy for you. How can you be this awesome?!!! When I was a student, everytime I had to read something in front of people, I tend to read it super fast. Yeah. I’m shy. Are you shocked? 😀

    1. VERY! That’s my tendency as well to read super fast when I’m nervous and I KNEW it when I went up to the podium, so I made a really conscious effort to slow down and hopefully it came out regular speed! xoxo

    1. I’m definitely not there yet – but you HAVE to just throw yourself in and try. That way at the end of the day, even if you don’t get to where you want to be, you can be confident in saying that you gave it your best shot 🙂

  13. hey, at least you did! i would have needed a whole bottle of wine to relax and do something like that. This is the reason I’ve not (yet? ever?) sung karaoke in my life. And why I still get the jitters when I have to do group presentations and etc. Even the silly “stand up and say your name, where you’re from crap” makes me nuts. And the fact that you read some of your own WORK? That’s simply amazing. Way to go you!!!

    1. Okay maybe it was TWO glasses of wine… lol!! Karaoke is on my list for this year! I have a friend who apparently goes regularly (except he’s actually a good singer!) and I’ve said I’ll go WATCH just to see what it’s like… and hopefully go up after someone really and truly awful lol 🙂 Thank you so much for the sweet comment!!

  14. Inspirational. I could never imagine having to read aloud one of my works of fiction in a public place! I want to be a writer so I’m positive I’ll have to do it someday but I’m not looking forward to it!

    I love how you’re just diving head-first into a new challenge all the time, no matter how scary it seems. I need to take some notes. 😉

    1. It’s the scariest thing! Stephany always remember the things that are worth most in life are paved with the rockiest roads… I know you will be able to read aloud one day because I know how much being a writer means to you! You just have to let the desire to be a writer outweigh the fear… you can do it!!

  15. Congratulations on this achievement; trust me, I know how hard it was for you, and I also know how amazing you felt afterwards. The way you always kick your anxiety in the butt is so inspiring to me! I know that I’ll make it there one day…

    1. Oh goodness I wish I’d kicked it in the butt but it felt like it kicked mine when I bawled like a child!! As long as we keep getting up and trying again, we’ll get there in the end 🙂

  16. I really admire you for throwing yourself into these challenging situations. When you’re feeling the fear, it’s so easy to talk yourself out of doing whatever it is you want to do.

    I find that when I’m comfortable, my voice and hands don’t shake with nervousness. Usually what happens is that I start very nervous and as time goes on, I grow more comfortable, but the more often I do something, the shorter the time my nerves are at me, and I end up doing things I thought I couldn’t. Unfortunately, as soon as I get out of practice, the nerves come back, but I guess that’s the reason you have to keep moving forward.

    1. I almost talked myself out of doing it — I was seriously debating not even showing up. But I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t try — choosing to face the fear has almost become part of my life, part of who I am, and if I ran away it would go against everything I want to be… you’re right though, you really have to keep moving forward otherwise the momentum slows and you get even more afraid.

  17. I think it’s really touching that you cried in front of everyone. Nothing at all to be embarrassed about! I am proud of you for overcoming a fear, and trust me, I know anxiety well. I can tell myself that I am not nervous, but my body almost always betrays me. If you figure out any secrets – let me know! I’m a teacher, but I have the worst nerves!

    1. We’ll keep trying, and keep in touch! I’m hearing that a lot of teachers are actually quite shy and anxious – but put on a face when teaching. I’m trying to adopt that through the idea that I really care about teaching other people things that will help them (even if they don’t see it at the time!), and I really care about NOT being a nervous person… and that’s more important than giving in to the fear and nerves.

  18. Hi Emily, I have been reading your blogs avidly, and really enjoying them. You are a couragous writer.

    I would recommend that you take one small step at a time, to reduce the anxieties. As you gradually handle each smaller step, you will see that you can do it. Keep practising public speaking, in small ways, like in your office with co-workers or out with freinds or family.
    The reaosn that you burst into tears is the releif and the release of all the adrenoline from your body The adrenoline is pumping so hard before and while you were speaking that it had to be released.

    I totally agree with the quote that was left by Jennyannefrazer, from Marianne Williamson – that it is our fear of being powerful beyond measure. It reminded me of a weekend workshop I took in in London called Landmark Education.
    As you asked for tips on how to alter the way you react, I would like to offer another suggestion, and that is to learn some relaxation techniques to perform before you speak. Breathing is also important. In your story, you said you had to sit and wait, I suggest that you keep yourself busy for the first few times, the anticipation is often worse than the actual doing. Also you are focussing on the act of public seaking and the fears that go along with it. Try being busy, I have found that it works. Do not focus on what you are going to say, you have rehearsed it already 🙂

    In the words of the wise man “Your struggle is futile.”

    My fear of putting myself out there and feelings of self-deprecation
    havestopped me from writing to you. It is strange I know that I have become like this when I score 10/10 of the extravert scale. Since leaving Portsmouth, where I was renowned in the community for my work developing a womens project and building the skills and sef esteem of women in the project. I moved to Winnipeg, where I felt no-one understood me. After not being legally allowed to work for a year
    my husband working away 12 days out of 14,not driving and living at the edge of the city I became more and more withdrawn and unsure of who I was. I have found it increasing hard to meet joyful people, who pride themselves in self development. I was so excited to chat to you on the meet-up group and am working on my intermitant enthusiasm to get myslef out there.
    Wow its easy to write once you start isnt it? lol. So here I am – I would love to go to kareoke with you and maybe we could gather acouple more who wanna be couragous lol. Me – I have no fears in getting up there – and love to motivate poeple and make them feel comfortable.

    Thanks for writing


    1. Oh goodness Sandy thank you so much for taking such time to write to me today! 🙂 I can definitely see the reason why I burst into tears – physiologically sometimes there are things that are impossible to stop your body from doing. But I’m ASSURED that I can stop myself being such a nervous wreck if I keep trying hard enough. I love hearing how comfortable you are and dedicated to get out there and help people – it’s somewhere I want to be one day. We should definitely karaoke!

  19. Good for you! Reading your material in public would be so intimidating since you are reading something that is so personal to you…. Good for you for overcoming that fear and getting up there & rocking it! So proud of you!

    And hosting a radio show? That is freaking awesome!

    Go you!

    1. Thanks!! I wish I could be more excited than nervous about it – maybe if I keep telling myself for the next two days that I AM excited about it, it might come across that way? Hold my hand!! 🙂

  20. I know plenty of people who always have some nerves before any public performance/speaking…it’s hard not to get nervous…this still goes for musicians, actors…EVERYONE. As with anything, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

    10 minutes is A LOT so I don’t blame you!!

    I think you blogged about it, but is this new job with the same company? Or a whole new company?

    1. It’s the same company – we got a 3-year project that’s going to be implemented starting Aug. 1 which means all of July will be training for it and developing the curriculum for all the workshops and classes etc. A total change of pace, but a challenge, and an exciting one! I think? 🙂

  21. Congratulations on moving forward!

    When I was in high school I was part of a program called Youth in Government and twice I was appointed to a position where I had to give speeches each morning for four days to kick things off. I remember the first time, sophomore year, feeling so freaked out about it. But by the last day I was loving it even though all eyes were on me! During senior year I had the same position and I wasn’t nervous AT ALL. I even signed up to take public speaking in school just because I suddenly loved giving speeches.

    I think it’s all in the mind and getting used to doing something like that. Once you get comfortable, you can do anything!

    1. I really hope so! That’s a great story – though I’m scared suddenly I’ll be teaching every day or every other day, I think the more I do it, the easier it will become. I’m happy to hear it completely turned around for you within the year — maybe I should sign up for Toastmasters or something! 🙂

  22. You, my dear, are truly amazing. Here you’re all trying to conquer it, and meanwhile, I just hold on to my klonopin for dear life. 😉

    This is my hat, off to you! ❤

  23. When I was teaching high school math, I found the more prepared I was the less stress and tension affected my body and mind.

    So, plan, plan, plan and always have a back-up PLAN.

  24. You are doing so great!!! The tears after your performance was simply a release, a pouring over of emotions. I love how you are jumping into the deep end and continuing to challenge yourself! Keep it up and remember you are enough and you are great!

  25. This is amazing, unquestionably kicking fear and anxiety in the nads once and for all. What a boost for you 🙂 we’re all following you on your journey and so proud of this big leap.

  26. Kudos to you to fight against the introversion! Like you, I’m not a fan of public speaking, but it’s amazing the rush you feel when it’s all over and you realize that your audience enjoyed what you presented. Good job, Emily!! 😀

  27. Hello There. I found your website using msn. This is an extremely well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback. Malia Rosa

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